THE OBBLIGATO SONATAS
St. James Church, King St., Sydney
Friday June 18, 2021
(Image courtesy Melbourne Digital Concert Hall)
This organization is new to me; I suspect because its activities don’t involve much touring and so its appearances are mainly confined to Sydney. Or perhaps it hasn’t been that active over the years since its foundation in later 2016; from the Akademie’s website, the farthest afield it has travelled seems to have been Canberra, and that for one festival. At all events, last week the group went online so that a wider public was able to witness its artists at work. And, as the participants’ interest is enshrined in their title, we were suitably offered a night of Bach in the Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard; but not complete as one of the six – No. 4 in C minor – was omitted.
Nevertheless, violin Madeleine Easton, harpsichord Neal Peres Da Costa and viola da gamba Anton Baba gave period-rich readings of the other five. The process was pretty much a musicologist’s delight, although the fairly full church (judging by the MDCH camera in the St. James loft) that had braved the latest of Sydney’s pandemic breakdowns (NSW the gold standard, Prime Minister? Give us a break, you clown) showed high enthusiasm at the conclusion to each of the works. Some of them are rather thorny, especially where the composer rips into his contrapuntal master mode – mainly in the faster second movements – but you had to appreciate the individual texture constructed by the three instrumentalists, Easton playing without vibrato and Baba urging out a bass line that refused to loiter in the background but set up a worthy challenge to the work’s treble, the instrument being favoured by the MDCH recording team which put Da Costa into acoustic recess for parts of the night.
All the sonatas have four movements, except No. 6 which interpolates a harpsichord solo right at its centre. The main point of differentiation from other chamber works of the period is the (almost) complete writing out of the keyboard part. Bach’s first sonata in B minor began on this night with a free-wheeling Adagio, which ended in a quasi-cadenza from Easton. In place of vibrato, Easton manipulates attack and dynamic to give her line a character that is lissom and taut at the same time. The following Allegro brought the keyboard more prominence, especially when Easton moved to a low register as at bar 43 (not that this reticence lasted long) and also in the violin harpsichord duets in 6ths. Only one miscalculation from Easton disturbed the persuasive fluency of this elating (for a minor key) movement
Da Costa benefited also in the sonata’s Andante from Baba’s use of pizzicato throughout, so that the duet work in both treble clefs became more clear-voiced. Just as welcome was the pliability of line adopted by Easton through her excellent responsiveness to inbuilt phrasing, like the sequence beginning at bar 22 where the insertion of very slight pauses gave to a repeated pattern an interest that the maintenance of strict metre wouldn’t permit. And, by the time the final Allegro had finished, you had time to appreciate Easton’s consideration for the keyboard’s dominance on paper as she gave dynamic ground to Da Costa, particularly in the main part of the movement’s second half where you could discern most of the keyboard’s detailed output.
The gamba/bass has such a considerable part in the opening dolce to Sonata No. 2 in A Major that it might have been worthwhile leaving the line to Baba alone as, for a considerable amount of time, the movement turned into a string duet. Here was another effective set of pages, with only a mini-slip from Easton marring the calm surface of this pastorale. Da Costa made one obvious right-hand error in bar 4 of the following Allegro but this is a fairly cluttered web, compared to its surrounds. Once again, we had opportunities to admire Baba’s rapidity of negotiation, even if some of his rests got short shrift.
Given the required staccato nature of the Andante un poco‘s bass, Baba stayed silent and Da Costa moved into lute mode across a section that I found the most satisfying so far in terms of instrumental balance, noting as it sailed past how Easton doesn’t totally eschew vibrato but rather uses it sparingly at the end of a sustained note – a technique that so many (all?) singers of popular music adopt to the point where it has become a talent show cliche. Bach’s concluding Presto was treated as an allegro, which makes sense when faced with the four-square heftiness of its material, added to which a more rapid pace would have made you less aware of the delectable small imitative passages between all three staves. Here was a satisfying accomplishment with the string players outlining the pages with a considered vivacity.
Easton had all the work – melodically – in the opening pages of the E Major Sonata No. 3, the harpsichord relentlessly urging out a chord pattern and the bass line, at first, immovably static. In fact, the violin’s part is ornate concerto-style lyricism, Easton keeping it under control with her subtle elasticity of phrasing. Not that there’s anything too complicated about the next movement’s harmonic adventures, but the scholarship comes through strongly, its relentlessness dissipated by lots of welcome suspensions. It seemed as if the players were here faced with a labour of love, pages to be negotiated rather than relished. For all that, the reading was the right side of aggressive with some sparkling right-hand work from Da Costa.
It seemed to me that some fatigue crept into play during the C sharp minor Adagio, the violin timbre more attenuated than it had been so far. Still, the players showed a clear realization of what they were concerned with in the long intertwining arches framed by plangent repeated chords/double stops, and in their phrasing that demonstrated a unanimity in preparation and delivery. Not the best start to the finale and you could point to some questionable delivery of individual notes as the piece surged forward, although Easton came in spot-on with those high Es across bars 103 and 105. Bab impressed even further here with passages of brisk bustling – for example, bars 15 to 20, and a particularly purple patch stretching across bars 34 to 39. It’s an extended movement and doesn’t get easier with the introduction (and then abrupt dismissal) of triplets to exercise the players. Not these three, however, who kept the impetus constant throughout.
Da Costa took the high road in the long fugue-like opening to Sonata No. 5 in F minor, Easton a presence but rarely dominant in the contrapuntal mesh. I liked the abstinence from attention-attracting ornamentation from both sides, letting the gravity of these pages have full rein and was convinced by the assurance of all concerned in their steady progress that a discrepant penultimate bar almost went past unremarked. You get distracted in the subsequent Allegro by the seamless craft of the writing, even though it’s full of asymmetrical shapes while giving the impression of faultless regularity. This substantial Bach marvel, so much more creative and innovative than anything conceived by his contemporaries, enjoyed a deft run-through with very few notes short-changed and Da Costa exceptionally definite in his semiquaver work.
By contrast, the Adagio has two modes of operation and sticks to them throughout, the violin confined to double stops and a predictable harmonic progression while the keyboard seems involved in a two-part invention. Baba sat this segment out and, despite the subsequent sparer texture, the players were unable to invest this section with interest beyond counting off the key-changes. So much more welcome, then, was the Vivace final movement which gave Easton the limelight with a wealth of suspensions to negotiate, the counterpoint brisk and finely pointed – which is the great advantage of performances in this style: you can take in so much more than when the lines are coated in both wool and lanolin.
In the last work, the G Major Sonata No. 6, the optimistic Allegro opening gave us a delectable change of scene, reminiscent of a ritornello to one of the more sunny cantatas. The pages flew past with an infectious bounce infusing each sentence, Easton clearly revelling in dealing with a congenial key. Here also, you come across compositional skill of the highest order with craft complementing lucidity of emotion, the whole dominated by that inimitable certainty of speech. A brief Adagio made a positive impression for its alternately spacious and fitful content, heading towards the galant if not already there. Da Costa’s following solo could have been cleaner with palpable errors in bars 13 and 14, and later bars 39-40, with some occasional mishits in exposed places. I don’t know if it was pre-determined, but the movement’s second half was not repeated.
Then, you would be hard to please if you remained unsatisfied with the trio’s interpretation of the penultimate Adagio that delights with its final chromatic slide from the initial B minor to the relative major. Here was a second wind that lifted the performance back to its high level of execution and emotional insight, the small hesitations and emphases finely executed. Baba delayed his entry into the concluding Vivace gigue until the subject re-statement at bar 12; one of those small touches that were dotted through this night and of which I probably missed at least half. This made a fine balance for the sonata’s opening: more earthy and basic in its material but full of good humour and those imitation games that Bach transforms into art without trying. Even at the end, these musicians were operating at DEFCON-1, as evident by those whip-crack 6ths turns for violin and harpsichord at the start of bars 76 to 79.
As the program finished, I was delighted to have come across the Akademie, if in this truncated form. Well, it may be something of a moveable ensemble, since some of the organization’s previous concerts have apparently involved ad hoc amplifications of both instrumentalists and voices. Mind you, pseudo-perfectionists like myself were left chaffing for Sonata No. 4, but there was plenty here to be going on with. At the same time, this kind of enterprise is a demanding ask of any audience; it reminds me of the days when Ronald Farren-Price, Mack Jost and Max Cooke used to play the 48 as a job lot, or – if you want to talk about concentrated efforts – Calvin Bowman’s performance of the complete solo organ music in one day at the Melbourne Town Hall. Felicitations to Easton, Da Costa and Baba on their program, one that filled out our experiences of a neglected corner in the immense Bach catalogue.